To borrow from the psychologist James J Gibson, our eyes are on ‘the head on the shoulders of a body that gets about’. The same goes for our ears. In other words, when listening to a recording we don’t just use our ears, but bring to it our entire selves – our walking, eating, breathing skin-covered selves. Before I describe the wonderful feast of sonic fusion that is this release from Holland Baroque and Wu Wei, then, I’ll lay my cards on the table. So rarely do I come across a recording that seems to speak directly to me, to my identity. As a performer and musicologist, I am immersed in music of the high Baroque. And often in my ‘day job’, I wonder how my Chinese ethnicity emerges. The answer is rarely: the musical language of 18th-century German men – Handel, Bach, Telemann – has become my mother tongue. This musical encounter between Holland Baroque and sheng virtuoso Wu Wei, in many ways, produces sounds I have been searching for my entire professional life.
The album is made up of extremely clever arrangements by Judith and Tineke Steenbrink, the masterminds behind Holland Baroque, in which works of the Baroque are fused with the sound world of ancient China. The sounds that Wei conjures on his sheng, a Chinese mouth organ, are tough to describe. Sometimes they are ethereal, a prophecy spun on the air. They can also be entirely present: a carnival on your doorstep, rowdy, drunken and wild. And Wei can also make his sheng scream in poignant pain. At the heart of the album is a solo improvisation dedicated to his father that intensely unfolds into Telemann’s Harlequinade in which Holland Baroque, fleet of foot, whirl in a hallucinogenic madness. There are also traditional Chinese songs, such as the Abendmusik that evaporates into the night. A sense of the improvisatory pervades the album, even the arrangement of Bach’s Andante from BWV1003; this is music made brand new. And in ‘Tristes apprêts’ from Castor et Pollux, Wei slides between notes of Rameau’s melody as if he is conjuring it there and then. The geographical meandering and sense of exploration are particularly successful given the length of the tracks. The listener is given time and space to settle into far-reaching sound worlds that sometimes have unexpected destinations. In What about some bells, the opening track, Judith Steenbrink’s arrangement of Telemann takes us from China through folk-like reels to the land of cowboys and bluegrass.
The cultural reciprocity of the disc is astounding – the listener begins to hear the Baroque in Wei’s Chinese performing traditions, as well as to find elements of the Chinese aesthetic in the historically informed playing of Europe. There is an overwhelming – and emotional – sense of a land being shared, of common ground being marked out and danced upon. While I agree with the Steenbrinks that ‘the Baroque can be found in many places’, here, in this wonderful meeting of cultures, the Chinese can too.